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States seek federal money for big bay cleanup plans

Complex pollution reduction roadmaps get mixed reactions
By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun
September 8, 2010
Chesapeake Bay watershed states that have submitted hefty plans to reduce pollution are looking to the federal government to cover much, if not most, of the added expense of completing the troubled estuary’s restoration.

The federally mandated cleanup “roadmaps” drawn up by the six states that drain into the bay and by the District of Columbia take nearly 900 pages combined — not counting appendices — to outline how they intend to reduce the pollution that is fouling the Chesapeake and its tributaries. If only because of their length, the plans are getting a mixed, even confused, reaction from farmers, municipal officials and environmental activists who have been poring over them.

“It’s so overwhelming that no one can decipher it except those whose ox is getting gored,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington think tank.
Even some of them are having a hard time.

“I don’t know if I understand it all,” said Valerie Connelly, legislative director for the Maryland Farm Bureau. From what she can make out, though, the farm lobbyist said, “It looks like a huge set of goals for everybody.”

The “watershed implementation plans” submitted last week are supposed to lay out how the states and District intend to reduce pollution enough to meet caps set earlier this year by the Environmental Protection Agency. Federal officials will use the states’ plans to draw up a baywide pollution “diet” by the end of the year, placing strict limits on how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can be discharged or wash into rivers and streams across the 64,000-square-mile watershed.

Experts say the bay is gorging on an overdose of plant nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, which trigger massive algae blooms every spring. Those aquatic plants, when they die, contribute to the formation of a huge “dead zone” in the bay in the summer, where oxygen levels in the water are too low for fish, crabs and oysters to survive.

Spurred by 25 years of missed cleanup deadlines, and a court settlement requiring regulatory action, the states and federal government have pledged to reduce pollution enough by 2025 to restore the bay’s water quality to what it was decades ago.

“These obviously won’t be easy choices,” Jon Capacasa, the EPA’s mid-Atlantic chief of water protection, said last week as the plans began coming in. “If it were easy, it would have been done already.”

Maryland’s 170-page plan appears to task all sectors of society to increase cleanup efforts, proposing upgrades of more sewage treatment plants and household septic systems, ripping up more pavement in cities and suburbs to soak up polluted runoff, and getting the state’s farmers to try new planting and fertilizing techniques to keep animal manure from washing into nearby streams.

Other states’ plans follow similar tracks, sometimes at even greater length. Pennsylvania’s 175-page blueprint envisions reducing pollution flowing into the upper Bay from the Susquehanna River by tightening oversight of the many livestock farms in the watershed and by developing new technologies for converting animal waste into energy.

Along with most of the other states, Pennsylvania also proposes to foster “nutrient trading,” by which farmers can get paid for curbing pollution from their fields. The money would come from sewage plants or developers seeking an alternative to paying for more expensive controls on their own activities.

But at least a couple of states — Virginia and New York — contend that there are flaws in EPA’s computer modeling of the bay, which federal officials have used to tell states how much pollution they must reduce. The states also question the federal government’s legal authority to require them to do more.

“Without the financial resources, New York would need assistance from EPA to make this work,” said Lori Severino, spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Virginia officials, who turned in their 117-page plan two days after the deadline, spelled out in a preamble their reservations about the scientific basis for the cleanup targets, the pace of the planning process, and the federal government’s legal authority to force states to act.

There are “fundamental flaws” in the EPA’s computer modeling of the Bay, Virginia’s plan begins. It also says reaching the pollution targets likely will cost billions of dollars, which it calls a massive “unfunded mandate” on the state and local governments in the midst of the worst economy in a generation.

“It is our position that the success of the [plan] may be largely subject to the provision of sufficient federal funding to assist in covering these massive costs,” Virginia’s plan says.

A couple of states also acknowledge they haven’t quite figured out how they’re going to get pollution down to the levels the federal government expects. West Virginia’s 92-page plan, for instance, leaves certain sections blank, saying state officials are awaiting more guidance from the EPA’s computer modeling.

“We could’ve put a whole bunch of fluff in there that says nothing, but we didn’t see the point in that,” said Scott Manderola, director of West Virginia’s division of water and waste management. The state is working with the EPA to get the needed information to fill in those blanks, he added.
Maryland’s plan proposes reaching its pollution-reduction targets five years early, by 2020, and it lays out enough options for curtailing nitrogen in state waters to go nearly a third below the federally mandated goal.

“We wanted to lay out a range of options that get us beyond where we need to go,” said Shari T. Wilson, the state’s secretary of the environment, “so during the public comment period we can have a good discussion about which options are the best ones to choose.”

Indeed, the state plan lays out more than a dozen different things farmers could do to curb polluted runoff, including several for which the EPA has yet to determine effectiveness.
For instance, state officials say they plan to review current guidelines for how much phosphorus farmers can apply when fertilizing their crops. Some fields on the Eastern Shore, where poultry manure is widely used as fertilizer, are oversaturated with phosphorus, making it prone to wash into drainage ditches and streams whenever it rains. Tightening those guidelines could limit where and how much chicken manure is applied to fields.

As a parallel measure, state officials have also proposed developing and expanding alternative uses for chicken litter and other farm animal manure, including converting more of it to dry, pelletized fertilizer and burning it to produce energy.

Environmental activists have found things they like in Maryland’s plan, but a lot lacking.

Jenn Aiosa, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she liked some of the state’s proposals, particularly those dealing with storm-water runoff, the only growing source of pollution in the bay. But overall, she said she found the state’s plan “unclear on what actions the state will take and when it will put those actions on the ground.”

“There are a lot of good ideas,” agreed Tommy Landers, policy advocate for Environment Maryland. But, he added, “it needs more detail about how they’re going to enforce pretty much everything they’re thinking about doing.”

Chief among the missing details, he added, is where the money will come from to underwrite additional cleanup efforts.

In a cover letter with Maryland’s plan, Wilson and Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin note that with the state in the grips of “the worst economic recession since the Great Depression,” the O’Malley administration has been limited in how much it can spend on bay restoration.

While hopeful that state revenues will eventually rebound, O’Malley administration officials point to “competing pressures” on state funds “that will constrain the budgetary choices that we have to make during the next year or two.”

Griffin, in an interview, pointed out that federal Chesapeake Bay legislation sponsored by Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin would authorize $1.5 billion in new federal grants to deal with urban and suburban storm-water pollution. Barring that, he noted that there may be renewed legislative efforts to require all local governments to raise funds to retrofit storm drains — legislation that did not pass this year.

The plan itself also notes that the fund dedicated to paying for upgrading sewage treatment plants — financed through a $30 annual fee on all state households — will run short of money by 2012. It says only that options for closing the deficit are being discussed, without endorsing any.

The EPA plans to hold 18 public meetings across the region to seek comment on its draft pollution diet, which will be released Sept. 24. The states, meanwhile, have scheduled public meetings of their own to get feedback on their plans. Maryland has four sessions set, beginning in late September.

Steinzor, the regulatory reform advocate, says that if federal and state officials really want feedback from the public on which cleanup measures are the most acceptable, they need to streamline their voluminous plans and spell out more clearly just what they’re proposing to do, how much it’ll cost, and where the money’s to come from.

“We don’t need to hear about all these endless pages with lots of charts and graphs,” she said. “It’s time for them to translate it out of bureaucratese and make some hard decisions.”

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